The Education Department in Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province has announced that it is closing 180 schools. The move -- which officials say was driven by lack of funds and unspecified structural reforms -- will leave more than 4,000 teachers and school employees jobless and interrupt the education of 170,000 students. Throughout Afghanistan, the euphoria following the Taliban's ouster and the re-opening of schools is being replaced by a growing sense of frustration. Many teachers have yet to receive any salaries since the academic year began in March.
Prague, 23 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- One of the brightest success stories in post-Taliban Afghanistan was last year's return of some five million students to school. For the first time in almost a decade, girls were allowed to resume their education.
Schools have gotten off to a slow start, holding classes in spite of a shortage of textbooks and pencils, desks and blackboards. In some parts of the country, lessons are conducted in tents or even outside, under a tree.
In many cases, teachers receive their wages only irregularly, or not at all. But they continue to work, hoping the situation will eventually improve.
But for thousands of teachers in Afghanistan's northern Balkh Province, the situation has gotten worse rather than better. Sayeed Yusuf Rahmani, the head of Balkh's Department of Education, says the Education Ministry has ordered the closure of more than half the schools in the province: "We have 32 schools in Balkh District, but only 13 schools are allowed to function; 19 schools will be closed. Seventeen schools out of 18 in Davlatabad District will remain open. We have 20 schools in Chimtol, but only five of them will remain open. There are 32 schools in Shulgara, but only one school is allowed to continue. This is a primary school [first six grades]. Now it is going to function with only one teacher and one other worker. There are 19 schools in Kishindeh District, but none of them is allowed to stay open."
The closures are a serious blow for Balkh's teachers and other school employees. Already strapped by months of work with no pay, more than 4,100 of the province's 6,700 school workers -- many of them women -- are now unemployed.
Shahzada, a cleaner in Balkh's Hashem Barat Lycee, is among those to lose her job. Speaking in a voice ragged with emotion, she says she feels "desperate" and describes the situation as "unbearable:"
"Why I am being fired? Why should this happen to me? I have no home. This is my only dress. My husband is ill. I haven't received my salary for months. I don't even have cooking oil at home. Now I'm even losing this broom -- the only means I have to make this miserable living. Why? I've survived war and rockets. I survived when 11 members of family were killed by a single rocket one evening during Ramadan. But I'm not sure I can survive this."
Shakilo Qaderi, a teacher at Balkh's Sino school, says even with an unreliable salary she was thrilled to be able to return to her profession after almost a decade. But now she finds herself out of a job once again.
"I was living abroad when I heard reports on Radio Liberty and Radio Farda that schools were being reopened in Afghanistan," she said. "I am a teacher and I decided to come back. I was happy to get my job back, even though I don't receive my salary regularly. But today I heard that our school is being closed."
The closures also put the schooling of 170,000 Balkh students in doubt. Classrooms in Balkh's 166 remaining schools are already suffering from overcrowding. Afghan Education Ministry standards limit to 40 the number of students in any one classroom. But in reality, the lack of qualified teachers means that number has swollen to as many as 60 per classroom throughout Afghanistan.
The ministry says under the circumstances, it has no plans to close any schools and that the announcement in Balkh and other provinces was the result of a misunderstanding between the ministry and the provincial education departments. Zabehullah Esmati is Afghanistan's deputy education minister:
"The Education Ministry has no closed schools and is not going to do so under any circumstances. To the contrary, we are planning to open 2,500 new schools. The problem in Balkh and also in Zabul provinces was due to a misunderstanding."
Esmati says some provinces last year established new schools or expanded existing schools without informing the Education Ministry, an omission that left them out when the ministry drafted its current budget. The deputy minister says the issue should be resolved as soon as the new schools are properly registered.
But the issue is not so simple. In many Afghan provinces, teachers have been working with no pay since the commencement of the school year in late March. Muhammad Zahir, the head of the education department in the Arguy District of Badakhshan Province, says his teachers are no exception: "Last year, our teachers received their salaries regularly. Well, it would come two or three months late -- just like with other people who work in government organizations. So far this year, we haven't received any salary."
Afghan students say they know their teachers do not receive their wages on time, but work in the hope that things will improve. But disputes like that in Balkh show that Afghan teachers may still have a long wait ahead of them.